Nineteenth-century accents, weathered seamen and an abandoned island off the coast of New England make “The Lighthouse” a horror fan’s American gothic fever dream. Starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, the film takes the viewer into the world of Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), the two lighthouse keepers who batter storms and personal struggles in an effort to preserve the lighthouse.
Like filmmaker Robert Eggers’ first film “The Witch,” his second is set in New England and plays on the familiar iconography of coastal life to draw in the audience. Eggers introduces the viewer to effervescent cloudy skies, jagged rock jetties and the towering white lighthouse that looms over the men and their actions. These elements come together at the beginning of the film as a harbinger of chaos and isolation.
Shot in black and white, the cinematography reinforces the darkness that shrouds the lives of Wake and Winslow. The characters seem to exist in a grayscale which emphasizes the ill-adjusted nature of their appearances. Specifically, Eggers uses close-ups to emphasize the discontented expressions on Wake and Winslow’s faces. For the first 20 minutes of the film, there is not much speaking between the two men causing the prominent white noise of rain, waves and wind to lull me into a deep sleep.
I was jolted awake when the film took on a more exciting pace, most evident through Eggers’ use of sound. The score very suddenly went from quiet white noise to stomping, banging and screaming. Sent to the island for what was supposed to be a brief stint working in the lighthouse, Winslow finds himself doing most of the physical labor for Wake. Refueling the light, lugging kerosene and emptying chamber pots are strenuous hallmarks of Winslow’s day, while Wake leisurely watches him work.
In fact, Wake persistently digs at Winslow. At one point, he even shouts, “Damn ye! Let Neptune strike ye dead, Winslow!” Sitting back in a wooden chair, wrinkles and old age crease Wake’s face, reflecting bitterness and a weathered existence. In addition, his beard bears grey scruff that matches the seemingly permanent grey sky that provides the backdrop for the film.
In contrast, Winslow represents youth. He is the more able-bodied, handsome and charming (albeit still rough around the edges) version of Wake. Unlike Wake, Winslow is more composed. He spends his days on a regimented schedule and does not fall victim to the uncouth nature of Wake’s constant farting and burping. Nonetheless, Eggers positions the two men next to one another. He wants the viewer to regard them as one and the same despite their characteristics seeming quite opposite.
The film goes on to depict how their relationship develops each night. In a series of intimate candlelit vignettes, Eggers demonstrates how the tenors of male friendship fester in the shadows. The two begin to bond over drinking, using alcohol as a way to cope with their isolation on the island. In one scene where the two keepers drunkenly stomp and dance, Eggers expertly pairs the noise of the clattering floor boards with the equally cacophonous noises outside. The storms are so severe that ships cannot be sent out for rescue. Thus, their raucous behavior increases as a response to their impending isolation.
In the midst of these dark nights, Winslow sees Wake naked standing at the top of the lighthouse. When returning from his not-quite-clandestine excursions to the lantern room, Wake becomes suspicious and hides the key to the room from Winslow. The secrecy surrounding Wake’s excursions exacerbate tensions in the relationship. The exchange reveals Wake’s determination to achieve emotional release and reprieve from their depressive situation, while Winslow is stuck in a seemingly never-ending cycle of labor.
Ultimately, this is what prompts Winslow to seek a release of his own. He finds a small statuette of a mermaid in his pocket and, through masturbation, uses the talisman to free himself from the confines of his mind. Throughout the second half of the film, his confinement in the lighthouse drives him crazy. As Wake’s lofty monologues stretch longer and become laden with obscure references to classical literature, Winslow is sent into a state of near psychosis — stuttering and incapable of response. The rest of the film is marked by frenzy due to Winslow’s obsession with the lighthouse’s lantern room.
In the end, Eggers excels in character development, eternally bonding the men to one another and to the lighthouse that they worked so hard to maintain. At the same time, the film in general is slow (and steady). It is a story of two men, one young and one old, who fight and compete against one another for dominance and power even when in complete isolation.
While the story can be considered inherently biblical (think of Cain and Abel), Eggers reminds the audience that the story is timeless and continues to be relevant now. Working like a parable or fable of sorts, the film paints a picture of immorality in order to give a righteous judgement at the end. Men in isolation resort to their most animalistic instincts and desires. It is the food chain, the Theory of Evolution and the Old Testament all in one — and Eggers captures it well.